My ADA story: A Deafblind Lawyer Dismantling Digital Barriers

I recently had the honor of introducing President Obama at a White House reception commemorating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The President shared a moving story of how, in the years before Congress passed the ADA, his father-in-law — who had multiple sclerosis — would sometimes hold himself back because he didn’t want his disability to inconvenience others. With that story, President Obama reminded Americans that “We’ve got to tear down barriers externally, but we also
have to tear down barriers internally.”

As someone who has struggled against attitudinal barriers, I loved hearing our President encourage the world to view access for people with disabilities as a civil and human right.

As a deafblind student, I witnessed advocates using the ADA to change social attitudes. The National Federation of the Blind regularly referenced the ADA when explaining to technology developers why designing access for people with disabilities is a necessity and not some optional cherry atop the Silicon Valley sundaes. I heard how the National Association of the Deaf used the ADA to increase closed-captioning online, and how Disability Rights Advocates used the ADA to compel Target’s tech team to make their website accessible to blind Americans.

Impressed by the success of the advocates, I felt inspired to join them. Back then, and even now, I encountered so many barriers in the digital world. Not because of my disability, but because of attitudes among tech developers that trivialize access for people with disabilities.

When I entered Harvard Law School, I encountered a serious question: How would a deafblind student succeed? I remember the first time I presented my communication system to a real-live lawyer. I felt many of the insecurities probably experienced by President Obama’s father-in-law.  Would the lawyer think I was somehow inconveniencing her or slowing her down?

Knowing the power of confidence, I hid my insecurities and put on a smile: “Would you mind typing on this keyboard since I can’t hear you? I’ll be able to read what you type on this braille display.” To my surprise, she started typing.

I started to think that maybe, just maybe, I would survive law school.

Not only does the ADA make it possible for people with disabilities to obtain a world-class education, but it also empowers us to overcome our own insecurities in pursuit of our dreams. Two years after law school, through my work at Disability Rights Advocates, I helped achieve a legal victory in /National Federation of the Blind v. Scribd/, the second
decision to hold that the ADA applies to e-commerce.

Twenty-five years after the ADA, advocates still encounter attitudinal barriers among tech companies that continue to insist that they don’t have to provide access for people with disabilities. Given the necessity of accessing online services in today’s world, all of us with
disabilities will continue to turn to the ADA to tear down barriers.

President Obama leads our nation in the quest to remove external and internal barriers. I received the honor of meeting our President at the White House celebration of the 25th anniversary of the ADA. Even though he had never communicated with a deafblind person through a digital braille display and QWERTY keyboard, he gracefully switched from
speaking to typing.

Through our conversation, I experienced the genuine warmth of our President, his attentiveness to people, his understanding of the value of technology in connecting people, and his sincere belief that people with disabilities, like his father-in-law, should never let attitudinal barriers stop us from pursuing our dreams.

Do you have stories of the ADA helping you tear down internal barriers,
digital barriers, or physical barriers? Share your stories using the
hashtag #OurADAStories.*

Haben Girma
Staff Attorney
Disability Rights Advocates

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